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A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and forbidden based on moral judgement and sometimes even religious beliefs. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society. The term comes from the Tongan language, and appears in many Polynesian cultures. In those cultures, a tabu (or tapu or kapu) often has specific religious associations. When an activity or custom is taboo, it is forbidden and interdictions are implemented concerning it, such as the ground set apart as a sanctuary for criminals. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Other taboos result in embarrassment, shame, and rudeness. Although critics and/or dissenters may oppose taboos, they are put into place to avoid disrespect to any given authority, be it legal, moral and/or religious.


Common etymology traces taboo to the Tongan word tapu or the Fijianmarker word tabu meaning "under prohibition", "not allowed", or "forbidden". In its current use in Tonga, the word tapu also means "sacred" or "holy", often in the sense of being restricted or protected by custom or law. In the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga, where the greater portion of the population reside within the capital Nuku'alofa, the word is often appended to the end of "Tonga", making the word "Tongatapu", where local use it as "Sacred South" rather than "forbidden south".

The use of taboo in English dates back to 1777 when English explorer, Captain James Cook, visited Tongamarker, a place he named "the Friendly Islands". Describing the cultural practices of the Tongans, he wrote:



Taboos can include dietary restrictions (halal and kosher diets, religious vegetarianism, and the prohibition of cannibalism), restrictions on sexual activities and relationships (sex outside of marriage, adultery, intermarriage, miscegenation, homosexuality, incest, animal-human sex, adult-child sex, sex with the dead), restrictions of bodily functions (burping, flatulence, restrictions on the use of psychoactive drugs, restrictions on state of genitalia such as circumcision or sex reassignment), exposure of body parts (ankles in the Victorian British Empire, women's hair in parts of the Middle East, nudity in the USmarker), and restrictions on the use of offensive language.

No taboo is known to be universal, but some (such as the cannibalism, exposing of intimate parts, intentional homicide, and incest taboos) occur in the majority of societies. Taboos may serve many functions, and often remain in effect after the original reason behind them has expired. Some have argued that taboos therefore reveal the history of societies when other records are lacking.

Certain taboos lose their sting over periods of time. In the United States and western countries, most people are now more comfortable than before when they discuss and explore social issues: alcoholism, depression, divorce, income disparity, personal relationships, pregnancy and childbirth and teenage rebellion. Medical disorders and diseases like cancer, polio, AIDS and suicide aren't as heavily taboo now as in the past. Certain personal things such as age, height, weight and appearance are not always shared with confidants or in public; this indicates that such topics may be taboo to some people.

Taboos often extend to cover discussion of taboo topics. This can result in taboo deformation (euphemism) or replacement of taboo words. Marvin Harris, a leading figure in cultural materialism, endeavored to explain taboos as a consequence of the ecologic and economic conditions of their societies. Taboos challenge one's free speech and individual rights to express a subject or issue in need to be addressed for the benefit, not to damage, any given society.

Also, Sigmund Freud provided an analysis of taboo behaviors, highlighting strong unconscious motivations driving such prohibitions. In this system, described in his collections of essays Totem and Taboo, Freud postulates a link between forbidden behaviors and the sanctification of objects to certain kinship groups. Freud also states here that the only two "universal" taboos are that of incest and patricide, which formed the eventual basis of modern society.

Other societal taboos to a certain extent or to some people are the polarizing issues of sex, death, racism, genderism, ethnicity, nationality, religion, politics, money, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, and disability. People follow this advice of not discussing, joking about or making an issue of things that can lead to bigotry, discrimination, and stigmatization of people with those social group differences. However organized debates are the only socially acceptable place for such topics because it's in a moderated environment. They developed as a result of concerns for civil rights, sensitivity, and multiculturalism in the late 20th century.

When presented in the shape of parody or comedy as performed by comedians, taboo topics and subject matter can induce comical reaction by the general public, without causing disgust or offense as to what was said or mentioned about an emotionally charged issue described as mainly taboo in a given society.

When changing social attitudes mean that a formerly taboo subject can be openly discussed for the first time, it is often referred to as "the last taboo", ignoring the paradox that further subjects may still be suppressed to the extent that they may not even be openly acknowledged as being taboo.

Taboo and art

Many contemporary artists deal with, or have been known to have taboo images and ideas including:

See also


  • Robert Arthur, You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos. Suburra Publishing, 2008


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